Before my wife and I swapped roles and my wife went back to work, she wrote a weekly column about family life for one of Britain’s biggest selling women’s weekly magazines. Every Monday, I’m going to go through her archives and reproduce one of her ramblings on my blog.
This week’s theme: SORRY KIDS, I’M NOT YOUR FRIEND
It happened in the middle of Mamma Mia! One minute I was prancing around the living room with my daughter and her friend, belting out Dancing Queen at the top of my voice, the next I was on the receiving end of a stare that felt as though it had blown in straight from Siberia.
“Mu-um!” hissed the seven-year-old. “What are you doing?”
“I’m being Meryl Streep,” I said. “Why?”
The seven-year-old exchanged a look with her pal and I knew what she was thinking.
It was the same thing I thought when my mum refused to let me wear a mini-skirt to the school disco and instead forced me to endure the humiliation of a Laura Ashley frock that made me look like a pair of curtains. It was what my friend said when her mum insisted on going out with her on her first ever date. And it was what another friend was heard to mutter when her mother banned her from watching Grease until she was 16 on account of it being ‘too racy’.
“Oh. My. God. You are so embarrassing!”
And now it was happening to me.
To be honest, I’d expected it, just not quite so soon. A mortified teenager I could accept but a shamed seven-year-old? And I’d had such plans for us. We were going to go on shopping trips together and then later on we’d swap make-up tips and maybe I’d even dole out some dating advice. In short, my girl and I were going to be best pals. But now with one blast of ‘you can dance…you can ji-ive’ my dreams had been shot down in flames.
Clearly, I am not going to be a cool mum, after all. Instead I seem destined to be one of those mothers who spit washes her child’s face in public, dances badly and says things like: “Call that a skirt? You’re not going out in that, you’ll catch your death.”
That was the kind of mum I had. When I was growing up, most of us had the standard issue mother. They even came with matching sensible outfits – no jeans, ever – and identikit hairdos – short and lightly permed.
Back then, adults were adults and kids were kids and we accepted it. But these days, mums and daughters are much keener to jump the generation gap. They share mates on Facebook, they swap clothes and even, as in the case of the Duchess of York, go on the pull together. At first glance, it looks like a great idea. But is it really?
The other day I was out shopping when I spotted two blondes tottering down the road. They were dressed in identical outfits – crop top, skirt that could have doubled as a serviette, towering heels – and, from behind, they looked like a couple of twentysomethings enjoying a day of retail therapy. It was only when they turned around I realised one was about 16 and the other was 45 if she was a day. I almost fell off the pavement!
I can see the appeal for the 45-year-old. Who wouldn’t enjoy being mistaken for someone younger? But surely the teenager ought to have been cringing? She’d been hi-jacked – by her own mum!
Celebrity mums, of course, are the pros at upstaging their kids. Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson look like sisters, as do Demi Moore and daughter Rumer. And poor Lizzie Jagger never gets a look in when mum Jerry Hall is around. Dressing like your daughter might give your ego a boost and scream: “Look at me, I’ve still got it!” But what does it do for a daughter who is taking her first steps into the spotlight?
I don’t mean that mums should disappear off the face of the earth when they hit 40 or 50. But if your mother is your best friend, who is going to be your mum?
Mums and best friends have very different purposes in life. One sets boundaries, the other breaks them. One tells you the uncomfortable truths about life, the other ignores them. One is your champion, the other is your rival.
Of course, it would be so much easier to be my kids’ friend. Sometimes, after a hard day at work, the last thing I want to do is have a row about homework or going to bed on time. But being soft on them just so they will like me isn’t doing them a favour. In fact it may actually end up doing them a great deal of harm.
As psychologist Dr Stephan Poulter puts it in his book The Mother Factor: “When mothers become best friends, it leaves their children motherless. This can create a lot of rage in boys. Motherless daughters tend to be out of control.”
Think of Channel 4’s Girls and Boys Alone series where kids left without parents go wild and you can see how, without a strong parent to intervene, children can push themselves and each other to dangerous levels of wayward behaviour.
But aside from that, there are times in life when no matter how many friends you have only your mum will do.
I discovered this when I first became a mother myself. It was a difficult time. My daughter was born premature and was unable to feed properly. No matter how hard I tried, she didn’t put on weight and while my friends’ babies thrived, she struggled.
Tired, overwhelmed and frightened out of my mind, I began to fear for my little girl. And then there was a knock on the front door.
I opened it and said to the figure on the doorstep: “Thank God you’re here.”
Mum put her arms around me and said: “Don’t worry. It’s going to be all right.”
She had no magic wand, no trick to make a sickly baby well. But what she possessed was something no best friend, no matter how close, could ever match – the ability to make me feel safe.
It was all I needed. It restored my confidence and allowed me to trust my instincts. Within a day, my baby was feeding. Within a week, she had put on weight and from that moment on neither of us looked back.
And it was all thanks to Mum. The same Mum who banned me from shortening my school skirt because that was ‘too tarty’. The same Mum who said: “A boyfriend? At 15? Don’t be ridiculous!” The same Mum who made me cringe when she attempted to dance in front of my friends. The same Mum who made me mutter: “Oh. My. God. You are so embarrassing.”
I hadn’t seen it at the time – in fact, I am only really appreciating it now – but in setting limits for my childhood, my mother allowed me to become the happy, self-assured adult I am now. By not being my best friend she put me – and not herself – first.
So today I am embracing my status as an Embarrassing Mother. I may even get a light perm to celebrate. As for me dancing around the living room to Mamma Mia! the seven-year-old will just have to lump it!
“You’ll thank me one day,” I told her. She is giving me the Arctic glare.
Apparently, 22 is the age when kids start appreciating their parents. So, only 15 more years to go, then…